Humility is something people value, but don't see in their leaders. In fact, only 25% rate their leader as humble. That means humility is critical and rare for leaders!
In fact, in a survey of more than 1,750 executives worldwide, only 25% of the people in an organization believed their chief executive officer was humble. That comes from research done by Leslie Gaines-Ross (Harvard Business Review - What Executives Value in Their CEO's).
In the survey, the same executives were 6 times more likely to assign humility to highly regarded leaders when compared to less highly regarded leaders. So, we can speculate that humility is critical and a key component of “high regard.”
And, the research shows why humility is critical. Because it helps the CEO's reputation if they are humble. The same research shows nearly half of a company’s corporate reputation and market value is based on its CEO’s reputation. Wow! Time to stop being the self-absorbed, all about "ME" CEO!
Even though humility is critical it has always been a difficult word and concept for me. First, it isn’t natural for me and second, it is difficult to measure.
Now if we use the English dictionary, you will find humility defined as:
That is a big help, primarily because the definition uses the word “meekness." Since humility and meekness are synonyms, I would like to offer the following as a definition of humility…
Strength under control
That's the definition I was taught for meekness and it fits humility also. Maybe this illustration will help explain why that is a good definition for humility.
Assume that you walked from Cairo to Johannesburg, a distance of 5,479 miles or 8,818 kilometres. That would be amazing!
Now today, you are in a group of people who do not know you. They are all bragging about the longest walk they have taken. As the conversation develops, one person says the longest walk they ever took was 20 miles. Then another person says, “I walked for 50 miles once” and another says 100 miles.
You listen to them and congratulate them for doing it. You also ask them questions about how they did it. AND, you feel no need to tell them that you had walked for 5,479 miles.
The Need for Humility
If you were asked, you may or may not tell them, it just depends on whether that information is needed for the group. If they asked because they were talking about how to plan a much longer walk, it would be good to tell them that you had some experience doing long walks. That would be helping them.
But, if it were just about how far people can walk, you may not say anything. That would demonstrate “strength under control”. Humility would not try to make yourself appear better than the others.
“Strength under control” does not hide strengths, but does not flaunt them either.
When leaders are arrogant and conceited, it creates a barrier between them and the people around them. So, again, humility is critical, because it lowers barriers in relationships. And, for most people, it makes it more difficult to do what the leader asks.
Looking from the leader's side, humility is critical because it is gracious in its actions toward others. Humble leaders serve, develop, and even sacrifice for others! They don't make everything about "ME." Instead, they make everything about the organization and others.
Humility is critical because it puts put the organization and others first. It is not "glamorous" like many of the other labels associated with leaders like persuasion, influence, inspiration, empowerment, risk taking, decision making, innovation, etc. Instead, humility spends energy on others, but returns the respect of others. Humility stays in the background, even fights for the back of the line instead of the front.
Highly Underrated Leadership Value or Attribute
The additional research that shows humility is critical comes from Jim Collins book titled Good to Great. He set out to find 10 companies that were much better than similar companies. At the beginning of his research, he told his team that he did not want them to focus attention on leaders of the companies.
But, after the research was examined, it was clear that each of the companies had leaders that could be classified as humble. So, he develop his view of how humility shows up in leaders. He may not see humility as critical, but he does see a humble leader reaching what he calls a "Level 5 Leader." Below are his 5 levels.
When Mr. Collins was referring to Level 5 leaders, he made this interesting statement.
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves. —Jim Collins